Correction and Editor's Note:
The story below, published by the Voice on September 22, 2017, reporting on complaints against the Alta View Animal Hospital and its owner, Dr. Paul Ghumman, contained two statements in need of clarification and another that the Voice wishes to retract. (The retracted content has been removed from the story below.)
In the case of a dog (“BooBoo”) treated by Dr. Ghumman and then taken by its owner to another veterinarian for a second opinion and further treatment, the Voice wants to clarify that some medical records were provided to the second vet by Alta View on the day requested after repeated phone and email requests, according to the complaint made by the dog’s owner to the California Veterinary Board in July, 2016. The complaint stated the full medical record, however, with doctors’ notes, was not provided to the owner until a month later, after the dog had died. The Voice story could have left the incorrect impression that no records had been provided to the second vet.
In their complaint to the Veterinary Board, BooBoo’s owners also stated that they never were told by Dr. Ghumman what was wrong with the dog after multiple tests and five visits. On two separate occasions, however, the owners did not authorize Dr. Ghumman to do an ultrasound scan, which, after publication of the article, Ghumman stated would have confirmed a diagnosis of liver cancer. An ultrasound performed later by another vet showed a tumor in the liver.
The Voice was unable to independently verify a cat owner’s contention that a second vet told her that Dr. Ghumman had prescribed medication that was not appropriate to the cat’s kidney condition, and that, in the owner’s opinion, Ghumman had performed unnecessary tests. The Voice therefore retracts those statements. Since publication of the article, Dr. Ghumman has denied these contentions, stating that nothing other than a routine blood test was given and that it showed the cat suffered from renal (kidney) disease.
Mountain View's Alta View Animal Hospital is facing mounting complaints from disgruntled clients who blame the clinic for mistreating or harming their pets. Allegations of mistreatment, shoddy record-keeping and other professional lapses, if sustained by the California Veterinary Board, could lead to the revocation of the license of the clinic's owner and lead veterinarian, Dr. Tejpaul Ghumman, a Los Altos resident. A representative for Alta View has denied the allegations.
The complaints against Alta View Animal Hospital are being promoted by Irina Badea and Jim Frimmel, a Mountain View couple who brought their dog BooBoo to the clinic in April of 2016.
At the time, BooBoo, a 12-year-old silky terrier, was clearly sick: he had a swollen belly, an overheated nose and digestion troubles, Badea said.
According to Badea and Frimmel, Ghumman prescribed numerous tests -- blood, pancreas, urine, X-rays and even ultrasounds. He suggested BooBoo might have Cushing's disease, a hormone disorder often linked to a tumor. Over the next weeks, Badea and Frimmel racked up about $1,300 in bills for medical tests and a variety of medication, including antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs.
Yet BooBoo continued to deteriorate -- over the next days, the dog began rapidly losing weight but his belly swelled to the point that he could barely walk. Badea says she began to question Ghumman's expertise. At their last visit in June 2016, Ghumman continued to recommend more tests and drugs for BooBoo, but he seemed unsure about what the problem was. At one point, they say he urged them to buy all their pet medication from him.
"You know how you get a sixth sense about some people? He was very off -- he didn't look you in your face." Badea said. "We kept paying hundreds of dollars but he's never telling us what's wrong."
For her, this suspicion was confirmed a couple days later when they brought their dog to a different veterinary clinic for a second opinion. Despite repeated calls, the staff at Alta View did not forward BooBoo's records in time to assist the second vet, Badea said. But even without those notes, this new veterinarian was aghast, she said. After giving BooBoo a quick lookover, she advised taking him immediately to an emergency room for intravenous fluids and antibiotics.
After a quick test, an urgent-care veterinarian at Adobe Animal Hospital told them there was little to be done for BooBoo and the couple said they made the painful decision to euthanize the dog that night.
The veterinarians who examined BooBoo said it was clear he had signs of pancreas problems, but Ghumman had somehow missed that, despite repeated examinations, they were told. Badea and Frimmel said the other veterinarians told them that the medication Ghumman had been giving their dog was likely inflicting further harm.
The next day, Badea received a call from a Alta View receptionist to check up on BooBoo. She was too exhausted to hold back her anger.
"I told her: 'You and your doctor caused us a lot of pain. My dog was tortured by your treatment." Badea said. "We thought, there's no way we're going to let this go."
Badea and Frimmel persisted in demanding that Alta View hand over Ghumman's records and notes from examining BooBoo. It took more than a month before the clinic finally turned them over, they said, but then there were other warning signs. BooBoo's notes mentioned the wrong dates for visits; meanwhile some treatments Ghumman had administered were missing from the logs. Badea and her husband were surprised to see the notes listed two other unfamiliar Alta View veterinarians as helping to examine BooBoo. Through all their visits, Ghumman alone had been treating BooBoo, they said. Badea suspected Ghumman had written up most of these notes weeks afterward.
According to one local veterinarian familiar with the case, the Alta View staff had routinely failed to turn over medical records for dozens of cases, even after multiple requests. Alta View would hand over records for maybe one out of four cases, the vet estimated. She spoke to the Voice on condition that her name not be printed.
"That's a huge barrier for care -- that means you have to redo blood work or other any other tests already done," the veterinarian said. "It's frustrating -- this is a clinic that's regularly picked as one of the best, but there's these huge red flags."
After the Voice requested an interview with Ghumman, a response came from his attorney, Michael Stevens, denying the interview request as well as the basis for the complaints.
"I am sure that all concerned were very attached to their pets and naturally have an emotional reaction to that pet's passing. That is entirely understandable," he wrote. "He is not going to discuss treatment histories of private parties with your newspaper."
A history of problems
Alta View's Yelp page has many people who say they are customers who give the clinic high praise, but there also are numerous stories of unhappy customers that echo what that Badea and Frimmel went through.
[Portion removed and retracted.]
In 2014, Ghumman was disciplined by the California Veterinary Medical Board for "negligence and/or incompetence" in treating Hallie, an 8-year-old cat that had to euthanized after he tried to treat it for bad breath.
Ghumman had originally examined Hallie in 2010, and he ordered blood and urine tests. But before the test results came back, he decided to perform a dental cleaning with various sedatives and anesthetics, according to the veterinary board's account of the incident. Those test results arrived the next day showing Hallie had severe kidney disease, meaning the drugs he administered could be dangerously toxic. The cat's kidneys failed, and she had to be put down less than a week later.
Hallie's medical records written by Ghumman conspicuously omitted how much of each drug was administered, and investigators later determined that he had falsified dates to cover his tracks. Ghumman later signed a statement admitting to his actions, which is now a public record.
In addition to operating his clinic, Ghumman had been operating an unlicensed online pharmacy, DiscountPetDrugs.com, which is now closed down. An investigation found that starting around 2008, he operated an unlicensed pharmacy out of a Sunnyvale warehouse, according to the state Veterinary Medical Board. His credit card records examined by detectives showed he had ordered about $2.4 million in drugs, including some highly restricted substances used for manufacturing methamphetamine. Some of these medicines were resold without prescriptions, proper labeling or storage, according to the veterinary board.
Mountain View police became involved in August 2011 after one of Alta View's former assistant veterinarians brought forward complaints that his medical license was being used by Ghumman without permission to purchase the large quantities of wholesale drugs. That veterinarian, Jit Virk, had worked at Alta View for only a few months, but he made a string of accusations to the police, alleging that Ghumman was using expired medicine and allowing an unlicensed stranger to conduct surgeries at the clinic.
The police sought criminal charges against Ghumman, recommending he be charged with identity theft, a crime that could result in up to three years in jail. The Santa Clara County District Attorney's office prepared the case for trial in 2013, but the charges were later dropped. Basically, it became clear it would have been extremely difficult to make a case stick that could result in a conviction, said Jonathan Beardsley, deputy district attorney.
"There was reasonable doubt as to whether we could prove the one charge we had filed," he said. "There were questions as to whether we could prove the lack of consent as to (Virk's medical license)."
But while the DA did not pursue the case, Ghumman faced consequences from the state Board of Pharmacy as well as the Veterinary Medical Board. Following the complaints, both licensing agencies compiled dozens of charges for discipline against him and warned that he could lose his license. The pharmacy board issued fines totaling $65,000 for operating unlicensed pharmacies.
As for the Veterinary Board, on Dec. 10, 2013, Ghumman signed a statement admitting to all but one of the charges and agreed pay fines totaling about $20,000. He was able to continue as a practicing veterinarian, but his license was placed on probation for four years. Since 2013, his disciplinary records have been publicly available on the Consumer Affairs website.
Looking for justice
After their dog BooBoo's death last year, Frimmel and Badea came across the hefty caseload surrounding Ghumman's practice, and they realized their bad encounter was not unique.
They took the common step of any miffed consumer by posting a scathing one-star Yelp review, but that felt insufficient, they said. They later wrote a letter to Alta View seeking reimbursement for the treatment they now felt was superfluous.
The couple heard back from Alta View staff asking if they would come by to talk. Frimmel agreed to go, but when he arrived at the clinic he was met by an unfamiliar veterinarian.
This new vet, who introduced himself as Dr. Michael Sterns, gave repeated assurances that all the treatments administered by Ghumman were completely necessary, Frimmel said. Eventually, he offered a deal: they would get a refund if they would just sign a liability release, freeing Alta View and its veterinary staff from any future claims or licensing complaints. It included a non-disparagement clause.
"How could I sign this?" Frimmel described thinking. "I can't take this money and just shut up about what happened."
The liability release specified that by signing, Frimmel also would be surrendering his right to complain to the authorities. Asked about this, a spokesperson with the state Veterinary Board said licensed practitioners are prohibited from asking customers to sign away this right.
Scanning the document later, Frimmel noticed the form had inadvertently referenced another past pet owner who was apparently asked to sign a similar release. Badea said she was later able to track down this woman, and she confirmed the clinic offered her the same deal after her dog died in their care. Szkop, the woman who felt bilked after bringing her cat in for kidney problems, later told Badea that the clinic had offered her a similar deal.
Badea and Frimmel said they began reaching out to dozens of others who had posted angry complaints and began regularly corresponding and collecting stories about their treatment at Alta View. This turned into a campaign to get as many people as possible to file complaints to the state Veterinary Board.
Ghumman remains on probation until April of 2018, meaning that even a minor infraction could result in him permanently losing his license, said Joyia Emard, spokeswoman for the California Veterinary Medical Board.
"If a person is repeating the same things that got them in trouble in the first place, then that's pretty serious," she said. "The board takes these kind of issues very seriously."
Emard could not directly confirm whether Ghumman was currently under investigation; however she pointed out that any complaints that are submitted would be pursued. Badea and Frimmel say state officials have confirmed to them an investigation is underway and should be complete in the coming weeks.
Badea and her husband are insistent that they aren't out for revenge, but they say they don't want other pet owners to face similar treatment.
"We're not here for money -- for us, it's like screw this, we have to fight him," Badea said.